Arctic Fix: Does Castration Help Reindeer Cope with Climate Change?

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A Nenets woman drags a reindeer at her settlement in the Tundra region near village of Yar-Sale, located in the Yamal peninsula above the polar circle, some 2,150 km (1336 miles) northeast of Moscow. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

If Rudolph wants to adapt to global warming, he may have to lose his most precious assets. (via AlertNet)

Or so say experts among the Sami—an indigenous people who occupy the northern extremes of Finland, Norway, and Sweden, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. As temperatures vary more in the Arctic region, snow thaws, re-freezes and forms a thick layer of ice over the pastures where they graze, forcing the animals to break through using their hooves and antlers. Research by the Sami suggests that neutered males grow larger, and that makes them better at digging for food. Castrated males also keep their antlers for much of the winter; their intact counterparts shed them in the autumn after mating season.

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As with humans, the penis often leads males to think only of themselves. By cutting genitals out of the loop, castration strengthens the herd: sterilized reindeer seem more likely to share food with calves, who might otherwise starve during bad freeze-thaw winters. “To make herds more resilient in the future, we need to re-learn the traditional knowledge of castration,” professor Svein Mathiesen of the University of the Arctic’s Institute of Circumpolar Reindeer Husbandry told Reuters.

That tradition stops short of full-on nip and tuck. The Sami method actually leads to “half-castration,” which renders the reindeer sterile, but doesn’t stop the production of testosterone, which facilitates muscle growth. That makes them more likely to survive the winter.

And while the practice of castration in an age of climate change makes sense to many, the Sami technique may leave advocates with a bad taste in their mouths. Rather than using sterilized medical equipment, the Sami simply bite into the reindeer’s testicles.

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